A stormy career at sea but John turned life around to inspire others

By any measure, young John Cooke was not exactly a model sailor in the Royal Navy.

John, front, extreme left, with some of his mates in the Royal Navy, in a picture he thinks was taken on the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes.
John, front, extreme left, with some of his mates in the Royal Navy, in a picture he thinks was taken on the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes.

His eventful “career” in the late 1960s included spells on the run and being locked up in military detention centres, including reputedly Britain’s toughest jail during which he was literally on bread and water while held in solitary confinement.

Yet after his discharge a fortuitous dropping of anchor in Shrewsbury was to lead to the Mancunian turning his life around and, ironically enough, ultimately becoming a careers officer giving advice to Shropshire youngsters.

Photos taken during his time on the aircraft carrier HMS Victorious indicate that he was not cut out for a life of military discipline. He and his pals are wearing the authorised headgear, but they are not wearing it in an authorised way.

“We ripped the plastic covering from our naval caps and wore them upside down as trilbies,” says John, who now lives in retirement in Prestatyn. “We considered ourselves as Mods. I think it was just after we’d seen the film Bonnie and Clyde. I think the film set a bit of a trend at the time.”

John Cooke today. He became a careers officer in Shropshire.

John has now told his life story in a new book, called All At Sea (published by Troubador, £8.99).

Finally achieving his freedom on being discharged from the navy, his plan was to go from Manchester to Bournemouth. But he only got as far as Shrewsbury.

“I found Shrewsbury and Shropshire to be, literally, a breath of fresh air in comparison to the polluted city of Manchester in the 1960s. I ended up staying and living there for the next 46 years,” says John.

“I chose Shrewsbury because I’d been a messmate with a guy who lived there and I’d known since training. We’d sailed halfway around the world together on board HMS Hermes.

“My RN pal mentioned the old Plough pub in The Square, so I arrived with the princely sum of £3 in my pocket and headed for the Plough to see if anyone knew these guys. On the way I was relieved of a pound by booking a bed at the Warwick hotel along Dogpole.”

He met and married a Shropshire girl, settled down, and began to build a new life. “We stayed together for 25 years. I’m now married to another Shropshire lass and have been for 24 years,” he adds.

John, standing centre, on HMS Victorious having "adapted" his naval cap.

“I played quite a lot of football in those days – Snailbeach, Donnington Wood, Blue Triangle, Worthen on Saturdays; Frankwell and The Abbey Hotel on Sundays – and count my team mates back then as family.

“On more than one occasion I’ve gone in the dressing room and asked if anyone had any work, I was that skint. Thankfully, both a self-employed bricklayer and a plasterer were on hand to help me out.

“I eventually went to night school at Shrewsbury College of Arts and Technology and sat O and A levels in English Language and Literature, then studied at Wolves Poly, gained a degree, and went back to Manchester to gain a diploma in Careers Guidance.

“I became a careers officer hoping to offer young people advice and guidance, and to help them make informed decisions as to where they thought their futures might lie, and not make the ill-informed mistake I made. I worked in both Shrewsbury and Telford for 28 years.”

It was aged 17, while hitch-hiking around Britain, he made the fateful decision to sign up to the Royal Navy for nine years. It was a big mistake and there was no legitimate way out.

All At Sea.

Before sailing to the Far East, he was given a 28-day suspended sentence for going absent without leave. That was just the start.

“A couple of days after leaving Sydney I was charged with wilful disobedience on board HMS Hermes as I disobeyed a direct order. I received 32 days for that, plus the 28 days which had been hanging over my head, making 60 days in a Military Corrective Training Centre in Tanglin, Singapore, and so was flown off the Hermes – an experience in itself.”

He went on to jump ship in Fremantle, and was caught three months later and charged with desertion, being put in cells in Singapore before flying back to Britain and being sentenced to 90 days in the Royal Navy Detention Quarters in Portsmouth – at the time reputed to be the hardest prison in the UK – for his sojourn in Australia.

“When I finally got my discharge it was for ‘long absence’ and I received 42 days in the Military Corrective Training Centre at Colchester, and then ‘outside.’ Yippee!”

John added: “Other people always said I should write about the adventures I had during a misspent youth. I’ve tried to illustrate the importance of decision-making to other young people who are about to embark upon life’s great adventure.”

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